The American Bach Soloists return to Davis on Monday with an all-Bach program featuring an array of instrumental pairings in the form of five “double concertos.” These feature two or more soloists playing baroque-style instruments of the sort that were heard in J.S. Bach’s lifetime.
The program begins with the Concerto for Oboe & Violin in C Minor, featuring John Abberger, a leading performer on historical oboes, sharing the spotlight with Elizabeth Blumenstock of the San Francisco Bay Area, ABS concertmaster and a widely admired Baroque violinist.
The gentler-sounding baroque oboe of the sort that Abberger plays is an instrument not frequently heard in these parts, and it differs from the more familiar modern instrument in several significant ways.
“My oboe is a copy of an oboe that was made by Thomas Stanesby Sr. in London, probably around 1700,” Abberger told The Enterprise. “The original is not dated, but it is a good example of a relatively early version of the oboe, definitely an 18th century oboe, but with one foot in the 17th century.
“It is made of European boxwood, which accounts in part for the mellower, softer, less penetrating sound. And it has only two keys — as compared to the 20 more keys found on a modern oboe.”
The baroque oboe has a certain reputation in musical circles for being a tricky instrument to handle. But Abberger, who has spent more time playing the baroque oboe than just about anyone else in North America, says it ain’t necessarily so.
“Many players come to the baroque oboe from the modern oboe, and from that perspective it can seem more difficult to play. But in the end it is no easier or harder — just different,” Abberger said. “It requires a different use of the air when blowing, different finger techniques, and — most importantly — different reeds.”
Baroque oboe concertos are not particularly lengthy as compared to concertos for string instruments, and there’s a practical reason why.
“The real issue is not the performer’s wind power, but fatigue of the lip muscles,” Abberger advised. “This is true of the (valveless) baroque trumpet as well, although the muscle stamina is more acute for the brass instrument,” since a performer on baroque trumpet uses his lip, rather than pressing down a key, to hit the right note.
A program like this one — featuring five Bach concertos — creates a good opportunity to understand how Bach adapted his musical ideas, arranging and rearranging them for multiple instruments.
“The concertos of Bach are very interesting because there is ample evidence that Bach himself transcribed many of these pieces for other instruments, so it becomes an interesting question whether or not all of these were ultimately re-used in some way,” Abberger said. “Many of these works survive into our time in versions for solo harpsichord, almost certainly not the instrument for which they were originally written.
“While in many cases (the existence of) earlier versions is speculative, the evidence that the Concerto in C Minor for Two Harpsichords was originally a concerto for oboe and violin is quite persuasive,” he added.
Abberger has recorded four of these speculative “reverse transcriptions,” including the Concerto BWV 1060 that he will perform in Davis. He also has recorded a version of the Second Orchestra Suite (BWV 1067) with oboe, on a recording released last year on the Analekta label.
Abberger was born in Florida, trained at Juilliard and Louisana State University, and now makes his home in Canada, where he teaches at the University of Toronto and serves as principal oboe with the early music orchestra Tafelmusik.
The orchestra has released numerous albums, including several Mozart and Haydn discs conducted by Bruno Weil, who was for many years the music director at the Carmel Bach Festival in California.
Abberger performs annually with the American Bach Soloists and also appears regularly at early music festivals around the world.
Elsewhere on the program, ABS Young Artist Competition winner Andrew Fouts and ABS founding member Katherine Kyme will perform the Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor, and harpsichordist Corey Jamason and Goldberg Prize winner Leon Schelhase will be featured in the Concerto for Two Harpsichords in C Major.
The remainder of the program features works requiring greater numbers of soloists: Blumenstock, Fouts and Kyme will weave together their elaborate melodic lines in the Concerto for Three Violins in D Major, and the triple-triple romp for nine soloists, Bach’s famous Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G Major, closes the program. Music director and maestro Jeffrey Thomas will lead the ABS orchestra in this showcase of instrumental virtuosity and compositional brilliance.
The concert begins at 8 p.m. Monday at Davis Community Church, 412 C St. in Davis. Tickets are $20-$53 general, $18-$48 students and seniors, available at www.americanbach.org or (415) 621-7900.
A pre-concert talk by harpsichordist Corey Jamason begins at 7 p.m.